It wasn't the economy, stupid

Observations on the election

To most of us the election feels like a distant memory, but Labour delegates in Brighton will find themselves dragged back to May when the conference hears the traditional general election report. (It is usually delivered by the general secretary, but after Matt Carter's resignation, it's a case of watch this space.) No doubt they will be told that the party waged a "positive" campaign that focused on the issues - which is what Labour would like us all to think - but new research shows that this is not what happened.

A detailed analysis of the news releases put out by the three main parties during the campaign proves that Labour and Conservative both fought essentially negative media campaigns. Focusing in particular on how the parties headlined their press releases (a reliable indicator of the points they wanted to emphasise), the research shows that all three parties devoted more attention to the election battle itself than to policy. Almost half of the releases issued by Labour and Conservatives - 48 per cent - contained tactical rather than policy messages. Of these, the majority were attacks on the other parties.

The Tories led the "nasty" stakes, with 37 per cent of their messages being attacks on other parties (overwhelmingly Labour); in second place was Labour - 33 per cent of their messages were attacks, while the Liberal Democrats devoted 28 per cent of their media messages to attacking the other parties.

One curiosity of the campaign was that the party press releases tended not to talk most about their own leader. Labour headlined on Tony Blair 19 times during the campaign, Michael Howard 25 times and Charles Kennedy three times. And it was a similar story with the Conservatives. They had headlines on Michael Howard 28 times, Tony Blair 32 times and Charles Kennedy once. Only the Liberal Democrats seemed to feel they had a leader worth writing about: Charles Kennedy received 30 headlines from the Lib Dems, Tony Blair 13 and Michael Howard seven.

It seems that the parties misfired when they did look at policy. Because Labour wanted to make the economy central to the campaign and the Conservatives believed that tax was a strong area for them, all three parties highlighted these related issues in their press releases. However, other measures show that neither the media nor the public was really interested. Tax and the economy were fifth and sixth in the media's priority list and would have been lower still, had not the closure of the Rover/MG plant occurred during the campaign. For the public, tax was the sixth most important issue and the economy was not even in the top ten list of concerns.

However, taking in the media's and the public's ten main priorities overall, Labour's media campaign was the one that most closely followed the concerns of the electorate, although whether this was a case of Labour leading or following the public mood is a matter for debate rather than academic research.

Ivor Gaber's research will be published in full as a chapter in the forthcoming Political Marketing and the 2005 General Election